Last updated: August 30, 2023
In today’s fast-paced digital age, content management systems (CMS) have become essential tools for efficiently managing and delivering content across various platforms. Among the various CMS options available, the concept of a headless CMS has emerged as a powerful and flexible solution.
A content management system (CMS) is a software platform that enables users to create, edit, organize, and publish digital content, such as articles, images, videos, and more.
CMSs have long been the backbone of digital content creation and delivery. Traditional CMS platforms, including open-source solutions like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal, have been popular due to their ease of use and integration of content creation and presentation.
Here's a visual representation of a traditional CMS:
A traditional CMS operates as a monolithic application. All of the different functions, such as content creation, storage, and delivery, are tightly integrated into a single system. Users use a WYSIWYG editor within the admin interface to create and oversee content, which is subsequently transformed into a responsive user interface that adapts to various devices.
However, the tight coupling of content creation and presentation in traditional CMS brings about several challenges. One of the main issues is the lack of flexibility when it comes to delivering content across websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, smartwatches, and any emerging technologies.
Each platform often requires specific content formatting and delivery mechanisms, which means content must be managed separately for each touchpoint. This not only creates inefficiencies but also leads to maintenance problems and inconsistencies in user experiences. The need for a more flexible approach gave rise to the concept of CMS with a headless architecture.
At its core, a headless content management system decouples the content creation and presentation layers. Unlike traditional CMS platforms, a headless CMS does not enforce a specific front-end presentation (the "head") for displaying content.
Instead, it provides APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that help developers fetch from a single content source and deliver data to any desired front-end, such as websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, and more. Moreover, the headless CMS often provides both RESTful API and GraphQL API options, ensuring versatile and efficient content fetching capabilities.
Here's a visual representation of a headless CMS:
In contrast to traditional monolithic setups, a headless CMS adopts a composable app approach. In this approach, various functionalities such as content creation, external integration, and delivery function independently yet cohesively.
Users engage with a simple data editor to efficiently create and manage content. This content then undergoes a seamless transition into content APIs, which can be used by a technology of choice.
Headless CMS: an analogy
Think of a traditional CMS as comparable to purchasing a frozen pizza — it's convenient but confines you to ready-made choices. In contrast, a headless CMS is like having a fully stocked kitchen complete with fresh ingredients at your disposal.
Imagine crafting not just a pizza, but also experimenting with gourmet pasta dishes or crafting delectable calzones using different techniques and flavors from the same box of ingredients. Such is the potential of a headless CMS.
A headless CMS functions through a straightforward yet powerful process.
Using a headless CMS comes with a plethora of advantages:
Headless CMS is embraced by diverse industries and organizations that value agility, customization, and seamless cross-platform content delivery.
|Traditional CMS||Headless CMS|
Frontend is tightly linked to backend
Content is separated from presentation
Uses a single technology stack
Provides APIs for content delivery to any technology stack
Developers work within the CMS's framework
Developers choose their technology stack
Monolithic nature may lead to performance issues
Separation enhances performance
Scaling may be constrained by the CMS
Can handle increased traffic and content
Backend & Frontend updates often interdependent
Content is separated from presentation
Time to Market
Template-based approach can be time-consuming
Faster as developers work in parallel on frontend and backend
Requires extra effort to deliver content across channels
Content can be easily distributed to multiple channels
Well-suited for simpler websites or blogs
Suitable for complex, dynamic, and omnichannel projects
Maintenance & Upgrades
More centralized but may be harder to upgrade
Easier to maintain and update due to separation
One major challenge of a typical headless CMS is the lack of a visual interface for finding and editing content. This can create difficulties in:
Read more on the problems with a headless CMS.
To overcome these challenges and improve user experience, a new type of headless CMS has emerged. Known as a Visual Headless CMS, it provides a visual, component-driven approach for creating content experiences.
A Visual Headless CMS includes all the features of a regular headless CMS, and also includes features that take the user experience to the next level.
A Visual Headless CMS gives users a way to effortlessly drag and drop content elements, such as images, text blocks, videos, custom components, and more to create captivating and dynamic web pages.
Developers and designers find their perfect playground, as Visual Headless CMS offers the flexibility to blend visual building with coding for ultimate customization.
A Visual Headless CMS streamlines the publishing process, enabling swift delivery of new pages, A/B tests, personalization, localization, roles, and permissions.
With visual tools, content creators can preview their changes in real-time, simplifying collaboration and streamlining the review process.
Here’s a snapshot of the capabilities of a headless CMS versus a Visual Headless CMS
|Headless CMS||Visual Headless CMS|
Offers a basic, form-based content creation interface
Provides a feature-rich, drag-and-drop content editor
Lacks the ability to preview content in real-time, with some (limited) exceptions
Gives an instant preview of edits and changes on a live page
Limited collaboration, requiring business teams to depend on developers for significant features
Facilitates effective real time collaboration among developers, marketing teams, and designers
Requires developer involvement to create and deploy tests
Enables easy A/B testing with analytics, without developer intervention
Requires developer involvement to create and deploy personalized variations
Empowers personalization by leveraging customer data and targeting specific user groups with tailored content
With a Visual Headless CMS, the overall structure is the same as any other headless CMS — content is fetched as JSON and rendered within your stack.
The key difference with a Visual Headless CMS, is you get first-class integrations for your choice of framework that let you reduce code clutter and embrace a more component-driven flow as shown below:
Ultimately, this helps developers avoid hard-coding layouts and component compositions — the CMS handles that while developers focus on components.
At Builder.io, we offer a powerful combination of user-friendly visual tools, collaboration-friendly features, and efficient publishing capabilities. We have a Google Chrome extension to easily help you with content editing within the web browser, along with a Figma plugin to make a smoother transition from design to web page. You can incrementally adopt our Visual Headless CMS or rebuild your frontend from scratch.